Read This Shattered World Online
Authors: Amie Kaufman
My hands go still, my attempt to escape momentarily forgotten. “Secret base,” I echo, trying to quell the dread rising in my gut. It’s one thing to be captured by a rebel. It’s another to be taken into the swamp by a delusional madman.
“Act as surprised as you want,” he replies with a shrug. “But you’re getting me inside that facility.”
His face is impassive, but he’s not as good at concealing his hand as he thinks he is. There’s a thread of white-hot desperation in his features, a tension pinching his lips and eyes I’ve seen before, countless times. For the first time, I wonder if he was telling the truth before, that he really was in the bar looking for information—and not a target for that antique gun of his.
My mind races. There’s no base to the east of us—even if the military had the funding to expand to a second base in this part of TerraDyn’s territory, which we don’t, there’d be no reason to keep it a secret. But he believes it. I can see that as clearly as I can see his desperation.
This is a good thing,
I tell myself.
Even if he’s mad, he’s still only one guy.
If I’d ended up in their rebel hideout, I’d be dead for sure. But here…there’s still a chance I could escape. For now, my only hope is to play along.
“So what is it you think you’re going to find in this secret facility?”
Romeo doesn’t answer straight away, leaving me watching as he poles the boat through the swamp. Though there is an engine hanging off the stern, he hasn’t touched it since I came to. This poling technique is one a few of us have campaigned for training on from HQ, but to no avail. We’re forced to navigate the swamps with noisy engines that get clogged every five minutes with swamp debris, while the natives slip through the narrow corridors soundlessly. A military patrol could pass not fifty yards away from us and never know we were here.
He pauses, withdrawing the pole and laying it across the boat so we merely drift along with the sluggish current. He’s favoring his leg, which has a makeshift bandage tied around it where I embedded that plastic cocktail sword. It gives me a surge of satisfaction to think that he probably doesn’t have the tools out here to fish out the broken piece. He drops down onto the bench, letting me see his face more clearly. He still looks oddly familiar, though I’m sure I would have remembered him if we’d met before tonight. “What
I going to find?” he asks, reaching for a canteen stowed underneath the seat and taking a long drink from it. “You tell me.”
“I can’t tell you,” I say, trying to hide my irritation. And my thirst, watching him swallow.
I remind myself savagely.
Earn his trust, such as it is.
Use it to get out of this mess.
“I would if I could, but I’ve never heard of a facility to the east.”
Romeo rolls his eyes. “Right. Well, there could be anything in there. Weapons, maybe. Some new tool to flush us out of the caves, for all I know. It has to be out of the ordinary for you to get it set up so fast, and with such secrecy.”
I peer through the fog. It’s growing lighter, which means I must’ve been unconscious for at least a few hours. Dawn is approaching. “That’s what you risked capture for, snooping around on my base? We already have weapons that outmatch yours ten to one. We’ve already tried every state-of-the-art technology to find your hideout. This swamp of a planet makes it impossible.”
Romeo grins at me, a smile that would be charming if there weren’t something darker behind it. “All that effort to find me, and you say you don’t like me?” He winks, holding the canteen up to my lips like it’s a peace offering. I could kick at his knees—he didn’t tie my feet, and he’s within reach now. I could knock him from his seat, have him in the swamp before he knew what was going on.
But then what?
I give in to my thirst and lean forward to take a pull from the canteen. I watched him drink from the same flask, so it’s not going to be poisoned or drugged. Avon’s muddy-flavored water never tasted so good.
Romeo sighs, setting the canteen back down when I’m finished. “Look, Captain.” He regards me with keen, thoughtful green eyes, as casual as if he were chatting with a friend and not interrogating his enemy. “I want a way out of this war for all of us. But first I want to know why Avon is generations behind where it should be on its terraforming schedule. You say that facility out there isn’t military; if that’s true, then it belongs to Terra Dynamics. I’m tired of them keeping secrets from us. The planetary review’s coming up, and if someone’s deliberately slowing down Avon’s progress, our side wants to know how.”
Surprise robs me of any clever retort. “You think there’s a secret facility in the middle of the swamp where we’re controlling the climate.”
His eyes cloud over, and without further warning he gets back to his feet, bracing them against the ribs and reaching for the pole once more. “I wouldn’t expect one of their hired guns to care anyway.”
I swallow down the impulse to lash back at him. If all I wanted was money, there are about a thousand careers I could have chosen instead of volunteering to get tossed onto this mudball and paid next to nothing to keep the peace. I grit my teeth. “Why would we want to stop Avon from developing, even if we could? What could the military or TerraDyn possibly stand to gain from that?”
“If Avon stays like this, too unstable to support a bigger population, we’ll never have enough leverage to pass the planetary review and be declared independent. We should be farmers by now, not fighters. We should be leading our own lives, earning wages, trading, able to come and go from Avon as we please. Instead we’re stuck here. No voice in the Galactic Council, no leverage, no rights.”
He’s got a surprising grasp of the politics of the situation, for someone who probably stopped going to school before he was ten years old. “You really think TerraDyn’s goal is to sit here and oppress a bunch of backwater terra-trash? They paid good money to create this part of the world. I don’t see how they start making that money back until Avon starts producing enough goods to export.”
Romeo’s jaw tightens. “They must. Otherwise, you tell me why nobody’s trying to find out why we’re all still algae farmers and water testers.”
“Not all of you are,” I point out dryly. “Some of you are thieves and murderers and anarchists living underground.”
“Why, Jubilee,” he says, grinning when the use of my full name makes my cheek twitch with irritation. “I had no idea you admired me so.”
I refuse to dignify that with a response, and fall silent. I have no answer to his question. Terraforming experts come and go, but Avon never changes. And it’s true that while Avon’s lack of development prompts a new investigation every few years, the results are always the same: cause unknown. If Romeo would stop asking so many questions, he and his so-called Fianna would be a lot better off.
Dawn has well and truly broken now, as much as dawn ever comes on Avon. In the thick, cold fog, the edges of the world slip away, leaving only our little boat and the sloshing of the water as the pole dips in and out. Romeo’s breath catches with each effort, hitching and stopping as he strains against the pole, then exhaling the rest of the way as he eases back and lifts it for another stroke.
He’s not using a compass. Compasses are useless on Avon anyway, which doesn’t have the right kind of magnetic field, and Avon’s weather patterns make satellite signals as unreliable as our broadcasts on the base. Even when they do work, with the way the canals shift and vanish due to floating islands of vegetation, the SatNav can get us into as much trouble as a compass would.
But Romeo seems to have an innate understanding of the world he lives in. Like he’s got a receiver hardwired into his brain, getting signals directly from Avon. We never run aground, we never get stuck on the floating islands. As far as I can tell, we never have to double back or change course.
I keep watching him, trying to understand how he does it. If I can learn the trick of it, maybe I can find my way back to base if I get free. He turns to navigate around a denser clump of vegetation and I lower my eyes, studying the way he shifts his weight to compensate. I lift my eyes only to realize he’s turned back around and is watching me watch
with one eyebrow raised.
I’m not sure which would be worse, him thinking I’m eyeing the gun at his hip, or him assuming I’m staring at his ass. I jerk my gaze away and give up on trying to study my captor. We move through the waterways in silence for the next half hour or more, my head pounding and his expression grim.
Abruptly, the bottom of the boat scrapes along mud and reeds and gravel, splitting the quiet with a screech.
“Ah,” says Romeo, bracing one foot against the bench and leaning down to clip the pole back to the side of the boat. “We’re here.”
All I can see is fog. He moves around behind me, brows drawing together in a silent warning against an attack as he bends to untie me. I clench my jaw so hard a line of pain runs up behind my ear to join seamlessly with the throbbing at the back of my skull. I could probably disable him, but we both know that without some idea of where we are, his people are just as likely—more likely—to find me than mine. I have to wait for a better chance. If only he were right, and there
a base here, I’d have the advantage. But a base means people—and where is the air traffic, the patrols, the static defenses? There’s only silence.
His fingers tug at the rope, warm as they brush the skin on my wrists, and with a sudden release of pressure, I’m free. I press my lips together hard against the bolt of agony that comes as circulation returns. He grimaces in reply, as though he’s actually sorry for the pain, and curls his hands gently around my bare wrists, fingers massaging the blood back. I shake his hands off, too irritated to accept any gesture of help. He rolls his eyes and climbs out of the boat, landing on the marshy ground with a squelch.
My fingers tingle with pins and needles as I grasp the gunwale and climb out after him. The fog is too thick to see anything, but he’s still acting like he knows where he’s going. “So? Where is this place?” I ask.
“It’s up here. I was here a couple of hours ago.” He’s utterly confident as he moves, keeping his voice down. His gun’s on his left hip, but he keeps me on his right with a vise-like grip on my arm. I find myself stepping softly, like I really might find myself on the wrong end of a sentry challenge, which is ridiculous—except after surviving this long on Avon, I’d hate to go down under friendly fire.
He leads me forward a few steps, but we haven’t gone far when even I know something’s wrong. His hold on me is tense, his face void of all smugness.
Then the fog clears, just for a moment. Just long enough for us to see that the stretch of solid land ahead of us is empty, barren of everything but weeds and rocks and untouched mud. The far side of the island dips back down into the water, which stretches on, uninterrupted but for the occasional distant outcropping of bare rock.
We both stare, though I don’t know why. I didn’t believe him—I never believed him. And yet, standing on this empty stretch of island, my stomach sinking and ears ringing, I’m surprised. I jerk my arm away, stumbling backward with the effort. “Why did you bring me here?” I spit the words, fists clenched against the urge to strike out at him. “What was the point? Why not just dump me somewhere out there in the swamps?”
But he’s not looking at me. He’s still staring, though the curtain of fog has closed again and there’s nothing to be seen. “It was here,” he’s saying. “This is exactly the place. I don’t understand—it was right—”
“Stop!” My shout brings him up short, and he turns on his heel, blinking at me. “I want an answer. Why did you bring me here?”
“Jubilee,” he murmurs, one fist relaxing and reaching toward me, palm up. So charming, so open, like we’re friends. This guy oozes charisma from his pores—if he’d been born on a legitimate planet, he’d have been a politician. “I swear it was here. I’m not lying to you.”
“Your promises don’t mean much to me, Romeo,” I snap.
“They can’t have left without a trace,” he says, clearing his throat and striding past me. “There was an entire facility here—fences, buildings, crates, aircraft. Help me look, there’s got to be a sign. Footprints, foundations, anything.”
While his eyes scan the mud, searching for his so-called signs, it gives me a chance to scan his features. He’s frustrated. More than frustrated—he’s scared. Confused. He really believes there was something here.
I’ve got to humor him if I’ve got any hope of returning to the base alive.
It’s a large island, and Romeo drags me through the mist, along the edge of the vegetation. He’s too cautious to let me out of his sight, but I’m not stupid enough to make a bid for freedom here. One wrong step and it’ll be a long, slow sink beneath the surface, with plenty of time to think about what a pointless way that is to go.
Humor him. Play nice. Talk him into sending you back.
The after effects from that gas can are still with me, long after they should’ve dissipated. My mouth tastes oddly metallic, like blood, and my pulse rushes unnaturally loud in my ears. I take a deep breath and try to focus. I find myself longing for the stars, the openness of the sky you never see on Avon. The fog has closed in again, and it’s impossible to see more than a few yards ahead, leaving me suspended in a world of gray and white. I have to keep my eyes on the ground to keep my balance, because looking out through the fog tricks my eyes into thinking I’m floating.
Luckily, Romeo doesn’t seem to have noticed. Maybe he chalks my stumbling up to the fact that he keeps jerking me along by the wrist. We’ve covered about half the shoreline when Romeo halts and lets go of me, gazing around with confusion.
Abruptly, a light blossoms in front of my eyes. Pale green, swaying gently from side to side, it’s no more than a few inches across. It dances there for a moment and I freeze, and as Romeo turns to start moving again, I realize he doesn’t see it.
Then the world slides sideways.